MANILA, Philippines | The U.S. military opposes the use of force by countries locked in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea and will maintain its presence in the strategic region for years to come, an American commander said Wednesday.
The comments by Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, follow remarks last month by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that outraged China.
Mrs. Clinton told a conference of Southeast and East Asian ministers that the U.S. has a "national interest" in seeing the territorial disputes resolved through a "collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants."
China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, which is strewn with disputed groups of islands, including the Spratly archipelago — also claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Adm. Willard said Washington does not take sides in the disputes but added it will oppose any use "of force or any forms of coercion to stake these claims on the part of any single nation at the expense of the others."
He said China's "assertive" behavior in the South China Sea was on the agenda in annual defense talks in Manila on Wednesday with Philippine military officials.
The two allies, which signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951, also discussed previous plans outlining how they can protect each other in case conflict breaks out in the disputed region, Adm. Willard said without elaborating.
"We discussed the assertiveness that we're experiencing by the Chinese in the South China Sea and the concerns that that has generated within the region," he told a news conference.
He said American forces will continue with their presence in the region for years to come to keep its sea lanes and airspace safe for the huge traffic of commercial cargo.
Adm. Willard also urged the countries in the region to build adequate militaries to help keep the peace.
"It's very important that the governments in the region invest in sufficient militaries and security apparatus to protect their respective territorial waters," he said.
"This is about preventing conflict, not allowing any of the circumstances in the region to lead up to a shooting war," he added.
Philippine military chief Lt. Gen. Ricardo David lamented his country's weak military, which he said could not adequately patrol the Spratly Islands that it claims.
With antiquated planes and ships, the Philippine military capability in the disputed areas is "almost negligible," Gen. David said.
The Spratlys are a group of islands, reefs and atolls with rich fishing grounds. The area is believed to have large oil and natural gas reserves and straddles busy sea lanes that are a crucial conduit for oil and other resources fueling China's fast-expanding economy and those of other Asian nations.
The conflicting claims occasionallyhave erupted into armed confrontation, although China and the other claimants have sought to resolve differences peacefully and pledged not to take any steps that could lead to clashes under a 2002 code of conduct.
Chinese forces seized the western Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 and sank three Vietnamese naval vessels in a 1988 sea battle.